Part 1: The College Application as a Whole – Seeing the Big Picture
Applying to college can be daunting, to say the least. I am the homeschooling father of nine children, but that’s not the main reason you should consider my advice. Why you may find what I say to be persuasive is that I served as a college admissions director at a college that attracts many homeschooled applicants. I have reviewed hundreds and hundreds of application forms, ACT and SAT score reports, essays, transcripts, and letters of recommendation. I have conducted hundreds of telephone and in-person admission interviews. I also have run hundreds of admissions committee meetings wherein college professors admit the students they think capable of college studies. I also have spoken with these same college professors and have come to learn how admitted applicants fared as students after they arrived. In short, I have become familiar with what makes for a persuasive college application. I know the view from the inside.
As helpful as all of this is, I’ve come to learn something else that should be of particular interest to the homeschooling parent: homeschooled college applicants have the added obstacle of overcoming the appearance of a lack of objectivity. Typically, they are evaluated by one or two people: mom and/or dad. Even if they’ve homeschooled several children, this does not compare with a professional teacher who has taught hundreds, even thousands of children. Thus, while a homeschooled student’s application is not intended to be subjective, it often is assumed to be so.
It is the object of these blog posts to help your child craft a college admissions application that does not give off the appearance of subjectivity.
The College Application as a Whole – Seeing the Big Picture
In the late nineteenth century, two French artists developed a new painting technique that became known as pointillism. Rather than using the traditional technique of blending different color pigments on a palette and then applying them to the canvas via brush strokes, pointillists would apply small, distinct dots or points, relying on the viewer’s eye to blend the colors into a fuller range of tones.
Perhaps the most famous pointillist painting is Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” pictured below. If you visit the Art Institute of Chicago and stand very close to the painting, you will be amazed at just how many tiny points Seurat meticulously placed on the canvas. Indeed, it is fascinating to see the myriad colors he used and to contemplate why he chose to place them exactly where he did. As fascinating as this is, however, it is only possible to “see the big picture” by stepping back and seeing how all of those tiny points work together to become something much greater than simply points of color.
So it is the same with a college application. While you should be attentive that each component—each point, if you will—of the application is well done, you don’t want to lose sight of how all the components should relate to each other. As your child assembles his application, he needs to think about it as a whole. Each part serves a particular role within the application, and a weakness in one part can be offset by a strength in another.
To begin with, it is helpful to understand the unique contribution each part makes to the application. The standardized test offers an outside witness to your child’s ability—sometimes the only outside witness in the homeschooled application—and no other part of the application compares the applicant with as big a pool of peers. Yet an applicant cannot be reduced to a test score. Of all the parts of the application, the letter of reference offers the most concrete, living picture. The transcripts give a picture of the student’s academic achievement over a long period of time rather than on a particular test day, and it can help the admissions committee see whether the student has covered the usual high school topics or something more exotic. Finally, the student essay is usually the only part of the application that allows the admission committee to see the student’s work directly, not reported by a teacher or reduced to a score.
But it is also helpful to think about how one part affects another. A college admissions committee will examine all of the parts of an application as so many clues to solving a puzzle. Maybe this applicant has a low math score on the SAT but high math grades in high school. Does the letter of reference explain the discrepancy? Maybe this student has low grades in composition. Does the student’s own essay demonstrate real ability nonetheless? If you think about how the committee will compare the various parts of the application, you can leverage a strength in one part to offset a weakness in another—or you can create a wonderfully convincing case by creating converging lines of evidence for the committee to discover!
Next time we will begin to dig into the individual components of the typical college application.